By St. Boogar and all the saints at the backside door of purgatory! It’s time to talk about swear words, slurs, cusses, profanity, and other ugly language. There may be some blue words in this post, so if you’re one of delicate sensibilities, you might want to give today’s essay a pass.
But we all know what you’re here for. You’re reading this to get the real balderdash and codswallop. So let’s dive right in!
Why Use Profanity?
As the writer of your story, you get to choose every single word that lands in the narrative. You have complete control, so why might you choose to dirty up your story with offensive words, consarn it?
Sometimes your characters demand saltier language. Even the most pious or taciturn individual will be moved to blast the heavens with the most explosive expletive after stepping on a Lego or smashing their thumb with a hammer. The gritty protagonist, finally face to face with the one that murdered their parents, might tell their foe to go sard themselves. And some characters are just naturally profane. Those individuals don’t require powerful motivation to let off a hearty “Zounds!”
Being true to your characters and their voices may mean using less clean language. If your characters start using words you wouldn’t normally use, that’s okay! It’s great, in fact! You should want your characters to sound different from one another, and different from you.
Allowing profanity in your story can give it a level of reality that helps immerse the reader. If it feels natural to you when writing it, it will feel natural to the reader when reading it.
Going back and smudging out the provocative words describing copulation and fecal matter will make your prose as unnatural and strange as this sentence.
The Intention of Offense
Let’s say you’re writing a scene and you have an opportunity to drop a slur into the dialog. Maybe one of your characters is a racist and they’re talking about another character that is of the race they are prejudiced against. You can imagine writing the dialog with the racial slur, and you can also imagine writing it without. Either approach seems like it would work. How do you decide?
The very presence of some words will offend or hurt some readers. For some people, the context does not matter. This is a danger for all profanity, but racial slurs are especially damning.
You have to decide your intentions. Is the narrative you’re constructing worth offending some portion of your readers? I don’t know if there’s a right answer to this question. To me, context matters, but I’m a cis white male. My perspective is from a position of social privilege.
I disagreed with the banning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which probably tells you everything you need to know about my stance on this subject. There are other viewpoints and perspectives, so you have to decide your intentions on your own.
Note that it is entirely possible to include a racist in your story without resorting to racial slurs. There are options, and sometimes the subtle ones are more effective.
Profanity as World-Building
We already touched on how profanity can reflect on character. It can also say a lot about the world the characters live in. The profane words of one society are different than those of another. Cripes, I’ve been using profanity throughout this essay, but they probably don’t register as naughty words because they’re from a different era. Cuss words are not static. They change over time.
I don’t want to get too deep into what turns a word into profanity. Swear words usually pertain to what is considered private, sacred, or unpleasant. “Zounds” from earlier is a shortening of “God’s wounds.” “Cripes” is a minced oath, taking the place of “Christ.” You already know the modern words we use for excrement (unpleasant) and fornication (private).
In other words, if you’re writing about a world that is different than our own, you can infer what is private, sacred, or unpleasant in that world by turning those things into swear words.
I have two examples from my current work in progress, Synthetic Dreams. The first is “frag,” which is used like our F word. I’m sure I’ve seen it used in other stories the same way, but it makes a lot of sense in Synthetic Dreams because all of the characters are synthetic life forms, and “fragmentation” is lifted straight out of regular tech speak for a file system becoming less ordered.
The other example from my novel is “mud pounder.” In my story, there are two main physical builds of synthetic people. There are the administrators, which are smaller and generally more graceful. Then there are the laborers, which are larger and generally stronger. “Mud pounder” is a slur in my world applied to laborers, implying that they’re big, dirty, and dumb. Without doing any other work, you already get the sense of the race/class disparity between administrators and laborers.
If your first instinct while writing is to use a swear word, do it. In my opinion, it’s better to stay true to the story and to your character’s voice than to worry about offending a potential reader.
It’s important to remember the difference between offending someone and hurting them.
Don’t be afraid to create your own profanity, especially if you’re writing for a different time or a different world. The real world is constantly attempting to create new swear words. I’ve personally been called a traitor cuck to my face, and probably a soyboy, NPC, or snowflake behind my back. You get the idea. We naturally throw words at each other like weapons, trying to bludgeon and cut. Having your characters do the same in your stories will give it an extra dimension of realism.